Monday, December 12, 2011

24 Hour Public Transport in Melbourne?

This article reports that the former premier Jeff Kennett has come out with the brilliant idea of public transport running 24hrs on weekends during the Christmas season. The proposal is hardly newsworthy, as it's been floated around for years but never implemented. There are many issues involved and there are plenty of self-serving groups out there who would rather keep it how it is. I'm going to explore some of the problems that the proposal faces, but before I do, I must state that a 24hr service sounds like a great idea on paper. Let's take it off and slap it with some reality.

1. Safety
This is usually the first concern by both staff and passengers when the issue of 24hrs is brought up. Many passengers would know how bad things are during the bad periods and the not-so-friendly areas of town, so it's no surprise that people would question this. Given that public transport is famous for being RE-active instead of PRO-active, I think they would have to demonstrate early on that more effort would be made for patrols and response times. 
Sidenote: If you're having any trouble on public transport, contact 000 yourself. Don't rely on the driver to always be able to spot things and know exactly what's going on, because operating a tram takes a fair amount of concentration. Do let the driver know if you can if there's a problem (often we don't know until someone comes up and tells us as they're getting off the tram), but don't expect each and every one of us to leap into superhero mode - we aren't bouncers, hostage negotiators, police or wrestlers. We have kids and families to go home to, as well as OH&S issues to consider. 
So what needs to be done? PSOs are being posted around the rail system at every station and this is IN RESPONSE to concerns about train safety. This is great, but there are dozens of stations that don't experience problems, so why not funnel these officers into the rest of the system? 

2. Costs
Not quite Christmas, but the Grinch is here already. It will cost a lot of money to run a 24hr service. Due to the continual stretching of work, trying to get the current staff to cover the additional time would be like trying to wear a sock as pants. So that means extra staff will need to be hired and trained. Then there's the wage bill. Working that late attracts some serious penalties and while the money might be good, I have never heard of any drivers being enthusiastic about all night services, regardless of cost.
Damage to vehicles is pretty extensive every Friday and Saturday night. Windows, seats, machines, you name it. How is this going to get paid for?
The question for this is "Where does this extra money come from?"

3. The dregs
The drunks, the drug-users, the ferals, the chromers and every other anti-social dimwit you can think of will be out there. Barely a week goes by that I don't hear about various tales of people passed out on the trams, getting carted backwards and forwards across town. They vomit, piss, leave rubbish behind, play their shitty playlists loudly for their mates, and so on. These are the people, whom after years of presence, have become an accepted part of the PT landscape. Having an all night service on weekends will only increase the problem.

4. Staff
It would be nice if we were asked "This is what we're proposing. What would you think is a good way for this to work so you're safe and happy to work at these times?" What will happen in real life is the Union will come to some sort of agreement where for a tiny payrise, we will get lumped with this. If you asked any driver about the whole 24hrs thing, you will be lucky to find one who would look forward to it. Yes, it's a good idea on paper, but after experiencing the worst of Melbourne's nightlife, I certainly would make it a mission in life to avoid those shifts, as would almost every other driver. 
As for Authorised Officers and other staff, more would need to be recruited in order to cover the gap. Given what they have to deal with (the spitting and punching), I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't want it either.

5. Fare evasion
Is pretty damn common on weekends. Why pay for a taxi when you can jump on a tram for free? Ticket inspectors, contrary to popular belief and press releases, are rare on Fridays and Saturdays when they are needed most. Why would you pay for a Nightrider bus (how late do they run again?) when you can jump on a tram and risk it for free? This issue goes nicely with that of Safety.

In closing, I think Kennett hasn't done this with the public in mind. It takes a minimum of one month to train a driver after recruitment has occurred. Add to this the time it would take to develop a timetable, run it by the Department of Transport and the usual channels, and you have a process that takes months. The article is dated December 12th, so this can't possibly happen this year. Given the cycle of media these days, you have to wonder what the agenda here was and why he didn't think of it earlier. A decade earlier perhaps? Most PT staff hate what he did back in the 1990s regarding staff and services. It's difficult to work out why someone with a Liberal background and reputation for decimating public utilities has come around to this conclusion. What interest does Jeff have in this? 
Broadly, the Liberals don't seem to be performing all that well with public transport. Sure, there are projects that have crossed over from the previous government, but I've yet to see anything that either separates them from their adversaries or anything that makes me confident in their abilities. And one should always be reminded that the pace of public transport is glacial (thanks to the ongoing fragmentation of the process that remains adversarial). Things that are happening now have taken years of work. It's no wonder many politicians hate public transport - it's taking a gamble for them at almost every step of the way. I'll have faith in the system when I see any public transport minister taking a ride around at 3am on Saturday night without police or entourage. And I'm not holding my breath.